This interview was originally intended to run elsewhere, but as the elsewhere in question has, shall we say, dissolved, you’re reading it here instead. Still, my biggest concern is just that you get read it, period, mostly because it’s just a really fascinating conversation, but also, if you’ve been walking around for all these years with some preconception of who Curtis Armstrong is, I think you’ll find yourself looking at him in a whole new light.
Shakespeare once wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown emblazoned with the name ‘Booger’” (or something not entirely unlike that, anyway), but Curtis Armstrong has never really had a problem with being associated with his slovenly character from the Revenge of the Nerds franchise.
Granted, Armstrong’s reasons for reviving the character or playing on its recognition factor, as is the case with the TBS reality competition series King of the Nerds, have generally been financially-based rather than out of a belief that it will provide creative satisfaction, but it’s doubtlessly also helped his acceptance of being Booger that he’s worked steadily as an actor – either in front of the camera or in a recording studio for voice work – ever since the release of the first Nerds film in 1984. In addition to high profile roles in films ranging from Ray to Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star and memorable stints on Moonlighting, Boston Legal, and The Closer, he remains a recurring presence even now on TBS’s American Dad, FOX’s New Girl, and The CW’s Supernatural.
Armstrong is also a huge aficionado of music and film, and during this chat, he discussed how those two loves came together in a big way with a Lindsay Anderson film that makes for a fascinating viewing experience, even if it isn’t exactly the easiest thing to summarize.
News Reviews Interviews: How did O Lucky Man! first end up on your radar?
Curtis Armstrong: Well, first off, I’m just curious: were you familiar with the movie?
Familiar with it, yes, but I hadn’t actually seen it until I got word that it was the movie you wanted to talk about.
Okay, but you were at least familiar with it.
Oh, absolutely. And I had enough lead time that I was able to download it and watch it before today, thankfully.
Well, the way I discovered it was basically when it opened. I was living in Detroit, and I went and saw it because… I believe I had already seen A Clockwork Orange at that point, but I’d definitely seen If…, which is the first part of the (Lindsay Anderson) trilogy, so I wanted to see it for Malcolm McDowell, who I really loved. But I really had to see it because of Alan Price. In fact, Alan Price was probably equal as far as drawing me to this film.
I had been a big fan of The Animals in the ‘60s, and when Alan Price left The Animals in ’65, he founded his own band called The Alan Price Set. I was living in Europe at the time, and it was one of those things where they were very popular there and I bought all of his singles, but when I came back to the States in ’67, no one had ever heard of him. He never really connected in the U.S. But I really loved him, so when I heard that he was not only doing the soundtrack to O Lucky Man! but was actually appearing in the movie, I just said, “Well, this is a must!” [Laughs.]
I still consider the soundtrack to be one of the best original soundtracks ever done for a movie. I mean, it’s such an astonishingly well constructed soundtrack, and the funny thing is that, if you listen to the album by itself, a lot of soundtrack albums sound like soundtrack albums, but the one for O Lucky Man! actually just sounds like a really great Alan Price record, which is another reason I love it.
In reading up on the soundtrack, it seems that Anderson had actually wanted to do a documentary about Price.
That’s right, yeah. They had a connection, the two of them, which I think was primarily political. And Alan Price was a very, very popular figure in the UK at the time, both in music and in television, because he was doing a lot of TV. He went from the blues – which is what The Animals were, a blues/rock sort of thing – to really something that was more cabaret. By the ‘70s, he was always performing in a tuxedo, and he had sort of a big-band feel to his music. He did do one other album after O Lucky Man! that was even better than O Lucky Man!, which was the basis of a musical he was working on at the time, called Between Today and Yesterday. He did about three albums in a row that were absolutely terrific, and then it got a little spotty after that. But I still listen to them.
With O Lucky Man!, what were your thoughts on the film when you first saw it?
Well, the first time I saw it, I think I was just speechless. I had not seen anything like it. And you have to put this in context: at the time, there were a lot of movies that were stretching boundaries, and if you were a moviegoer, you could go and see things – even American movies – where they were trying new things and going in new directions. But I couldn’t even nail down what O Lucky Man! was. I mean, what is the movie even about? Actually, the great thing is trying to explain what it’s about, because…it’s about a coffee salesman in England. That really is what it’s about! And then he goes off from there. But I think at the time what fascinated me was that it was a surrealist comedy/drama/fantasy musical…and those don’t come along every day! [Laughs.]
But I loved the acting, and I loved the fact that Lindsay Anderson was casting actors in multiple roles. As I said, I’d seen If…, the first film in the trilogy, and as much as I liked it, I thought O Lucky Man! was wildly superior. It was on the level of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, in that, as great as The Godfather was, The Godfather Part II was in-the-stratosphere good. And to tell you the truth… [Starts to laugh.] That analogy is actually a good one, because the third film is Britannia Hospital, which does not really work that well at all.
But O Lucky Man! is an extraordinary movie, everything about it. It crosses so many different genres, and it does so with humor and horror. I remember the scene where Mick Travis discovers the guy in the hospital who’s half-pig. At the time, it was such a shock and so horrible. And as horrible as the pig-man is, the expression on McDowell’s face is what sells that scene and just sends chills. So it worked on a lot of levels for me. Ralph Richardson, who plays a couple of roles in it, was a favorite actor of mine, and I loved him. So there were a lot of things to like.
Normally I’d ask how you’d describe the film to someone who’s never seen it, but you kind of touched on this a moment ago: even as much as we’ve talked about O Lucky Man! at this point, anyone who’s reading this interview but has never seen the film before is almost certainly thinking, “Yeah, I still have no idea what it’s about.”
Yeah, I know. [Laughs.] The story is an interesting one. I worked years ago with Malcolm McDowell, and of course I wound up bringing this up – which I don’t usually do, but I’m afraid I fanboy-ed all over him about O Lucky Man!, which pleased him. I think he has a very warm spot in his heart for this movie, because it was very much his instigation that made it happen.
He actually came up with the original concept of the film, didn’t he?
Oh, it was more than a concept. It was a 40-page script outline, and he brought it to Lindsay Anderson. Lindsay had won the Palme d’Or for If…, and Malcolm was very eager to work with him again and had this idea based on his own experiences as a coffee salesman. And he makes up this detailed 40-page outline or script or whatever it was and brought it to him, and he said Lindsay was sitting there reading it while Malcolm is waiting to get the word, and he turns over the last page, and he says, “Well, it’s not really epic, now, is it?” [Laughs.] And he told him to keep working on it. So Malcolm and David Sherman, who had worked with Lindsay before, the two of them started working on it, and I believe he then went off to do a movie or something, and it was during that period that Lindsay Anderson was starting to think in terms of how to make it a larger movie. And he got the idea of doing the thing with Alan Price and bringing Alan Price into it, and…it just started to go. So you can understand McDowell’s affection for the thing.
It’s such a brilliant movie, and yet it’s not highly regarded, even still. Over all these years, I’ve been waiting for the world to catch up and realize what a remarkable movie it is, but there’s still only a very small cult that really appreciates it.
It’s a very British movie. Do you think that might have something to do with its limited level of appreciation, at least in the States?
I guess. But, you know, I think that’s something that… [Hesitates.] Critically, I think people can appreciate British movies as long as they’re easy to digest. It’s the kind of thing where, like, Downton Abbey doesn’t become what Downton Abbey is because it forces people to think about things or experience new things or stretches their ideas of what makes television possible. They do it because it’s very familiar. And comforting. It’s comfort food. And as long as your English film or television is accessible to Americans, they might miss it the first time, but they’ll ultimately come to appreciate it. So I don’t think that it’s necessarily that, although it is totally English in tone…as it should be, since they’re all English!
But it’s also just something that I think critics have a hard time with because they don’t understand it. They don’t understand stuff like why he’s casting people in multiple roles. “What does that mean?” I think that’s it: people like to have things understandable. They like to have things explained and tied up. And they don’t like things that are radical. And it’s also political. I think there may be a political aspect to it that is acceptable from someone like Jean Luc Godard but wouldn’t be from Lindsay Anderson.
I don’t think that Lindsay Anderson is considered a major filmmaker in the States. He made relatively few films. He did a lot of theater. Including with Malcolm! They did a stage presentation production I saw of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in London, a revival of that play that Alan Price did the music for. But he did relatively few films, and of them, there were none that were big hits in the States. His first movie was The Sporting Life, with Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, who’s in O Lucky Man!, and that’s considered a classic British film from that sort of angry young man, kitchen-sink style of filmmaking, but I don’t know if anybody ever saw it over here.
After you saw O Lucky Man! that first time, was it the sort of film where you immediately felt like you wanted go back and watch it again to see what you might’ve missed?
Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury that I didn’t have at the time, you know? I was seeing the movie in the US, it ran about a week, and then fortunately my parents had moved back to Europe – they were living in London – so that summer I went over to visit them, and it was still showing there. So that was when I started going to the theater and seeing it over and over again. But unless it popped up in a revival house, an art cinema or something, I never would get a chance to see it again, because it just wasn’t popular, you know? It just wasn’t popular enough. So it wasn’t until it came out on video that I was able to see it again, but I bought it the week it came out, and I’ve been watching it ever since.
But you have to realize that whenever it came out on video tape for the first time – in the ‘80s or ‘90s, whenever it was – I had seen it in the theater, so I had aged, and I was looking at it differently, so a lot of my reactions to O Lucky Man! really come from the last 25 years. I was seeing it in one way then than I’m seeing it as an older person. Now, in addition to the things that I still love about it, I would say that the thing that I’m struck by is that it really is more like one of the classic 18th century Picaresque novels, like something Henry Fielding would’ve written.
Actually, an even better analogy would be Cervantes. It’s like Don Quixote, from the standpoint that it is a Picaresque tale, one event after another, following this person – whether it’s Tom Jones or Don Quixote or whoever – through these occasionally bawdy, sometimes surrealistic adventures. So I think as someone who loves 18th and 19th century literature anyway, one of the things that I love about O Lucky Man! is that it feels like one of those books where, when you start to read it or re-read it, you’re sitting down for a real bath, and you just luxuriate in the strangeness and the language.
But, you know, even though it’s a favorite of mine, I think one of the things that also turns people off about O Lucky Man! is just the length of it. For people nowadays, that’s really a commitment, to sit down for 184 minutes or whatever it is.
There are complete-series sets of TV series that aren’t as long as O Lucky Man!
[Laughs.] That’s right! So that kind of thing probably does put people off. For me, on the other hand, those are the kinds of books I read – or films I watch – all the time. But my favorite movie of all time is Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, which is similarly vast and epic and sweeping, so I guess I do have a weakness for that sort of thing.
If somebody took a shot at watching O Lucky Man! and hit a point somewhere during their viewing where they just said, “That’s it, I’m out, I can’t do this,” would you suggest that they give it at least one more try?
Well, I mean, obviously I’d say “yes.” But I’d also say that if you’re watching it on your computer, you might as well not bother. Obviously, the way to watch it is on the big screen. But if you can’t watch it on a big screen, at least watch it not on a fucking laptop, because you’re not going to get any kind of sense of… [Hesitates.] This is my problem with that whole idea, as great as it is that movies are so accessible. All those years I couldn’t watch O Lucky Man! because I couldn’t see it anywhere, now all I have to do is click a button and there it is, and yet by watching it on a computer screen, it degenerates the experience. And I don’t care what anybody says: that’s the truth. You do not see a movie the way it’s intended to be seen. And some movies are fine, and it doesn’t make that much difference, but not something massive, something large, something that’s intended to be epic…and Lindsay Anderson is nothing is not epic.
That’s something else Malcolm McDowell said: other movies would be minis, but he went for epic. Not in the Laurence of Arabia sense, but something that was bigger than real life but was making points. So I think that if you’re looking at a movie like that, I would almost rather not see the movie than see it on a little screen. For years and years, I’ve had O Lucky Man! and I’ve had Les Enfants du Paradis, but I’m lucky that I’ve lived in New York and Los Angeles, where these movies come up periodically on big screens, and I’m able to go see them. If I was living in Montana, that might not happen. But I’ve been very lucky, because what winds up happening is that these movies, I almost never see them, even though they’re in my house, because I know that I would rather watch them on the big screen.
But to your question, if someone who wanted to see the film and struggled with it, I’d recommend that they try again. It also might just be that it’s not something that’s their cup of tea at all, in which case it doesn’t matter where they watch it. But there’s something about the computer thing or the streaming thing which I think stacks the deck against movies so much that it doesn’t surprise me. And I think that people are accustomed to watching something and having it be over in two hours – I’m talking about a sustained narrative, as opposed to binge-watching – but that’s just the way people are now. So it’s just hard on people. They’re not trained to do that. So I would say, “Have another go.” But I’m obviously biased.
Is there a particular scene or moment within the film that kind of sums up the feel of O Lucky Man! or perhaps underlines what you most like about it?
I’m trying to think whether there is such a thing, but…I don’t know that I can pick out a moment. I really don’t know that I can. It’s too much of a whole.
Well, with effort, you could explain the plot. But the plot doesn’t tell you anything. I mean, another great movie is Citizen Kane, but it’s the same thing, really. “What is it about?” “Well, it’s about this guy who starts out poor, gets really rich, and then loses everything.” “Oh, okay.” [Laughs.] I mean, that’s essentially what it is. But when you actually see it, you see the heights and the depths and the richness and the gorgeousness, the visual quality, the music, all of those things, and it doesn’t come anywhere close to explaining why it’s an important movie.
With that said, are you at least able to sum up why you consider it to be compulsory viewing?
In a nutshell, I think that it’s important because people don’t make movies like this anymore. And it’s something that gives the moviegoer – the viewer, I should say – a cinematic experience, which is what it’s actually supposed to be about. It’s a surrealistic, almost insurrectionist approach to a very simple plotline that’s invested in with so much gorgeous visual quality, so much wonderful music, great acting from the crop of ‘60s British actors. It’s not a movie that you’re going to see and go, “Oh, I understand that!” Not, like, from personal experience, obviously. Most people don’t find men who are half-pig in a hospital. [Laughs.] So it’s not going to be anything that you’re going to be able to relate to, like in a romantic film. It’s something that’s a unique, massive piece of moviemaking, done entirely without computers.
The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” would seem to be apropos in this instance.
Well, it’s really true. I mean, they did at the time. I don’t mean to sound like the Grand Old Man here, but the truth is that that period of ‘60s and early ‘70s moviemaking was the time when people were really trying new things, and Lindsay Anderson was one of the major proponents of that. It was a time when people were asking, “Why make a movie if you’re not going to make it special?” So that’s what he did. And I have to say that it’s been nice having it rattling around in my head for the last couple of days, getting ready for this interview. I went back and listened to the soundtrack again, I watched the movie and listened to some of the commentary and looked at some of the features on the disc. Like I said, I don’t usually watch it at home because I do still prefer to see it on the big screen and in a theater. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not nice to know that it’s always around.